Friday, June 21, 2013

Switching from MS Office to LibreOffice: Three weeks in

There's an MS Office for Mac but not for GNU/Linux. Although there's a roundabout way to get MS Office working on GNU/Linux (Ubuntu to be precise), the office software that's the default choice for people using a GNU/Linux system is LibreOffice or OpenOffice, both of which are free and open-source.

From the start of this month I've been using Ubuntu. The switch from Windows to Ubuntu has been largely smooth, but moving from MS Office to LibreOffice has been a bit challenging. There are many articles comparing these two, including a very interesting one that is focused on the compatibility between the two given that MS Office is so common and people often have to work on documents with or for other people. Compatibility is my main concern as well.

First, here's a list of some "office" tasks I did this month with LibreOffice:
  1. Worked on long text documents (50 pages or so) -- looked at comments inserted by others, included my own comments, used track changes, put together smaller documents created by others, etc.
  2. Used pivot tables and formulas in spreadsheets.
  3. Tinkered with spreadsheets with hundreds of rows and possibly a hundred columns.
  4. Added content to a document template with images.
  5. Looked at graphical analysis of data in a spreadsheet.
  6. Created a set of text slides for a talk.
And here are the problems I encountered:
  1. Comments included in MS Word are visible within LibreOffice Writer (the Word equivalent), but comments included using Writer are not visible when the document is opened again in MS Word. This happened irrespective of whether I saved the document in .DOC, .DOCX, or .ODT format. The last one is LibreOffice's native format, which Word opens -- although after presenting a couple of warnings that will make most people think that the document is corrupted! LibreOffice Writer can open, edit, and save documents in .DOC or .DOCX format, but the problem is with comments -- they are not visible in MS Word after being inserted with Writer.
  2. Graphical elements didn't translate well from MS Office to LibreOffice. An image in a Word document looked pretty strange when seen in Writer, and a colorful pie chart in a PowerPoint document was rendered in grey in Impress (the PowerPoint equivalent).
And here's the good stuff:
  1. Writer is great for general-purpose documentation. Users of MS Word might find that pretty much every functionality they use in Word is in Writer. But macros created in MS Office won't run readily on LibreOffice.
  2. I found that Pivot tables and formulas in Excel documents worked fine in LibreOffice Calc (the Excel equivalent), though there are some cosmetic changes in data analysis and presentation.
The problems have caused some discomfort but they haven't come in the way of my work. I like LibreOffice and I plan to keep using it. It's free, good, and made by the inspirational Document Foundation, that among others things is committed "to eliminate the digital divide in society by giving everyone access to office productivity tools free of charge to enable them to participate as full citizens in the 21st century."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

WordPress LMS versus Moodle

A few weeks back I met Vasumathi Sriganesh, a medical librarian who runs a fascinating non-profit called QMed Knowledge Foundation in Mumbai, India. We shared our experiences with the problem of availability and access to scholarly journals in developing countries. We also spoke about e-learning and how to run online courses. Vasumathi knew about Moodle but she had recently heard that WordPress has its own LMS or LMS-like features. This was news to me and I wanted to find out more.

A quick online search led me to this comparison of some options to make an LMS in WordPress:

The advantages of WordPress seem compelling, but not this one: “[WordPress is good if] your courses are independent learning courses and your users don’t have to interact with each other or an instructor”.

And here’s a pro-Wordpress piece from the makers of one of the plugins:

One of the lines in this piece caught my attention: “…you would author all of your content within one Experience API (Tin Can API) compatible software packages such as Articulate or Captivate.”

Apparently the plugin is compatible with “Experience API”, a recent standard for e-learning content. But it sounds like one would need expensive authoring tools such as Articulate or Captivate to create modules in this standard. I don’t know if there are any free authoring tools for this purpose. Of course, one option is to present simple text and multimedia content, but then it may not be possible to track what learners have done.

Obviously more research is needed, but I've often noticed that people considering e-learning don't know enough about Moodle's constructionist philosophy of education, where students have the ability to share and create knowledge. When one has seen this happen, as I have, it’s hard to look at e-learning as just content.

When I wrote up a report following the recent AuthorAID online courses, I found a statistically significant correlation between a participant’s forum activity and whether they completed the course. For example, all participants who made more than the median number of posts completed the course. Then, two-thirds of the participants said that both the forum posts and course content were equally useful for their learning.

So I’m a firm believer in the value of interaction in an online course and I try to look to the heady Moodle philosophy ( for inspiration.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ten tips for learners taking MOOCs

This post is related to my series of posts on the INASP blog on MOOCs and educational development. The tips below are especially for learners in developing countries.
  1. Coursera, Udacity, and edX are the major providers of free MOOCs as of mid 2013. Check out their websites to find out which MOOCs could be right for you.
  2. Most MOOCs are video-based. As soon as you enroll in a MOOC, try opening a few videos to see whether they stream properly. If not, see if there are downloading options or text alternatives to the videos. If you can't see or download the videos and if text alternatives are missing or insufficient, the MOOC is probably not going to be a great experience.
  3. If you're going to be given access to a software application during the MOOC, check whether you will be able to use or buy this software after the MOOC ends. If not, the potential to apply what you learn could be affected.
  4. When the MOOC starts, give yourself a couple of weeks to try the content and assignments. You'll then know if the MOOC is right for you. If it's not, feel free to quit the MOOC. Most MOOCs have completion rates around 10% and one of the likely reasons is that a lot of students enroll in MOOCs without knowing if it's right for them. Don't feel bad about quitting a MOOC, but this is best done early. If you quit a MOOC, don't assume that MOOCs in general don't work for you. Maybe you need a different course, more spare time, or something else.
  5. Most MOOCs have weekly schedules. Once you join a MOOC, set aside time every week for going through the content, working on assignments, taking part in discussions, etc. Without a study schedule that you can stick to, it might be hard to keep up.
  6. MOOCs often have tens of thousands of students, so the discussion forums can be daunting if you've never taken a MOOC before. Don't worry about getting on top of the posts at the start of the course. Usually, whatever you need to do in an assignment is covered in the preceding course content. But keep an eye on the discussion forums: students may have pointed out technical problems with the course that may affect you too. Once you settle into the course, you might find it easier to use the discussion forums to make posts.
  7. Some MOOCs have group exercises and peer assessments. Follow instructions closely and be polite and positive as you work with other students.
  8. It can be difficult to keep up your motivation to complete a MOOC especially if other commitments get in the way. One way to motivate yourself is to discuss your MOOC with your family, friends, and colleagues, as well as on social media.
  9. Celebrate once you complete a MOOC! Tell people about it and add it to your CV.
  10. Look into ways to apply your learning soon after you complete a MOOC, otherwise you might forget what you've learned.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Installing Ubuntu: for non-geeks

Last Sunday I installed Ubuntu on an old laptop that was lying around the house.

Ubuntu is perhaps the most popular variety of GNU/Linux in use. Ubuntu is not only free but is backed by a stable and socially minded organization. For a while I've been thinking about whether an operating system like Ubuntu would be practical in the context of ICTD (information and communication technologies for development).

My first objective was to try out Ubuntu from the point of view of someone working from home. I am my IT help desk. If there's a problem with my computer, I'd better figure out how to fix it myself.

My second objective was to find out if I can live without MS Office, among other things. There's LibreOffice and OpenOffice for Ubuntu, but they're not the same as MS Office that I bet is used by at least 95% of the people I have ever exchanged documents with.

Coming back to the installation, here are the specs of my laptop:
  • Compaq 610
  • Bought in October 2009 for approx Rs. 40,000 (Indian Rupees), roughly $800
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GHz
  • RAM: 3 GB
The laptop came with Windows Vista and MS Office. It was in use until about a year back, when the battery died completely (the laptop doesn't last a second if it's not plugged in), Windows became unacceptably sluggish, and -- thankfully -- there was no longer a need for the laptop.


Step 1: I bought a 1 TB (or 1000 GB) external hard disk for about Rs. 5,000 ($100) from the famous Alfa store in Mumbai (massive discounts on pretty much anything from almonds to, well, hard disks). I copied all the data from the old laptop to the hard disk. Copying about 200 GB took a couple of hours I think.

A 1 TB hard disk: Not larger than a wallet!

Step 2: I downloaded Ubuntu version 12.04 from the Ubuntu website. This is the long-term support version so it seemed like the safest option. The installation file was 693 MB and took me a couple of hours to download.

Step 3: I used the instructions given on the Ubuntu site to burn the Ubuntu installation file on a CD. Note: You don't need a CD burning software to do this. A free software is recommended on the Ubuntu site. (By the way, I had to search for "installation" to get to the instructions -- would have been nice if there was a clear link to the installation instructions on the homepage.)

Step 4: I began the installation. I kept the CD inserted in the computer, said bye to Windows, and restarted the laptop. Generally speaking, if a CD is in a computer at the time of restarting, the CD is read to see if there's anything like an operating system on it.

A glitch

After restarting, the screen I got wasn't the same as what's shown in the installation instructions.

That's me looking at the options during Ubuntu installation from a CD. Not what I expected.

I soon began to get strange error messages in green at the top of the screen. Then a black screen with more incomprehensible error messages, starting with the phrase "Kernel panic". It was troubling to say the least.

I went back to the Ubuntu site to read the instructions more closely. I spotted the problem: I had burned the installation file on a CD when I had to do it on a DVD! Apparently a CD doesn't have enough space.

I don't have any blank DVDs so I went for the other approach: installing from a USB stick.

Ubuntu fits on a 2 GB pen drive.

Reattempting installation

I inserted the USB stick in the laptop and restarted it (after saying bye to Windows one more time). Just when the computer was restarting (the black screen with the messages we don't read), I pressed F9. You may need to press another key -- see what keys are recommended at the bottom of the first screen that appears when you restart your computer. You need to be quick!

I was given a few options, and one was "boot from USB hard disk" or something like that. I selected this.

It worked!

I saw almost exactly the same series of screens that the Ubuntu site says you'll see when you do the installation.

I wiped out Windows during the installation, but you can choose to keep it alongside Ubuntu. This is a clear step during the installation and you don't have to worry about tinkering with any settings to keep Windows.

After I'd done my part, the installation proceeded automatically and after perhaps an hour I was treated with the sight of the beautiful Ubuntu desktop:

Doesn't that look inviting?

Excluding the first failed attempt, installation to the point of seeing the Ubuntu desktop took about 3 hours. Not too bad as preparation for a new computing experience.